The result, Zopp thought, could be a strong cohort of up-and-coming African American professionals ready to take on C-suite roles in companies, or lead government or nonprofit entities. Zopp brought her idea to Derek Douglas, who had joined UChicago that same year as vice president for civic engagement and external affairs. The concept immediately resonated with him, and what he had experienced traveling the country in his previous role working on urban issues in the Obama White House.
“It was not on my radar screen when I first joined the White House, but this issue of pipeline kept coming up over and over,” said Douglas, who served on the Domestic Policy Council from 2009-11. “Many cities would say they understand there’s all these great visions and ideas for what they want to be, but they don’t have the people, or the people haven’t been developed, and there are no programs or ways out there to do it.”
Douglas brought Chicago Booth on board as an educational partner. George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, joined with the Urban League, helping develop a curriculum that combines a civic education with practical leadership skills—all within a classroom setting where participants feel safe sharing their personal experiences.
“They come together, they trust each other, and they inspire each other to do bigger and better things,” said Wu, who continues to be Booth’s faculty director for the program today. “You need that inspiration to be more ambitious, and you need the knowledge and resources and the network to deliver on that ambition. I think we’re able to provide the fellows with all of those things.”
Meeting monthly at Booth’s Gleacher Center downtown, the 35 fellows admitted to each cohort of the highly selective program learn and network together over nine months. Civic education modules cover African American history and politics in Chicago and their effect on current issues, such as health care, criminal justice and education. Guest speakers across industries visit to share their perspectives. Booth faculty teach leadership coursework on negotiations, decision-making, business ethics, power and influence, and interpersonal dynamics.
Felicia Rauls, a 2014 graduate of the Evening MBA Program, joined IMPACT in 2019. She initially thought that taking classes again at Booth with her MBA professors would be familiar territory.
“But that first day of IMPACT orientation, I was sitting in a Gleacher classroom like I had done countless times before, and I looked around, and all I saw were Black faces and it felt surreal,” Rauls said. “I had an instant feeling of ease, an unspoken connection and level of comfortability and confidence. I knew this time at Gleacher was going to be a much different experience.”
Rauls, senior vice president and director of operations at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, said that kind of camaraderie is important to her—especially as a Black woman in finance, where just 12% of professionals are African American. She noted that the relationships she made with other fellows have extended even after IMPACT concluded.
“I’m really seeing the benefit of those connections during this time of social unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd, and just being able to have a network of individuals who lend their support and who are navigating the work place like I am (and have) is empowering,” Rauls said. “We don’t all have the same perspective or agree on every topic or approach, but we’re all navigating the workplace in similar situations.
“The diversity of thought offered by the fellows informs my perspective on how to address a variety of workplace issues. Just being able to have someone to chat with about diversity and inclusion topics, and ask, ‘If this situation came up, how would you deal with it?’ has been a great value-add from the program.”